The Post-Apocalyptic Present

Andrew Hoberek

Post-apocalyptic fiction used to be disreputable, a source of pulpy thrills and nuclear terror. Flourishing in the post-World War II period, works like Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955), John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (1956), and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959) sought to represent the aftermath of some cataclysmic event that wipes out a majority of the human population, renders advanced technology useless, and leaves civilization in (literal and figurative) ruins. In the past few years, post-apocalypse has been winning the day with a stunning resurgence among genre and literary writers alike. Latter-day post-apocalypses such as Max Brooks’s World War Z (2006), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Justin Cronin’s The Passage (2010), and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011) have forged a shift in literary sensibilities. While just a few years ago, established writers like McCarthy and Whitehead had to make the genre “respectable,” now the genre itself seems to confer literary status.  

Indeed, post-apocalypses and their generic kinsman, the dystopian novel, have perhaps become too respectable. In an essay on recent dystopian fiction, Ursula Heise contends that dystopian novels’ “focus on details of everyday life makes survivalists hard to tell apart from hipsters, their portrayals of apocalypse tend to recycle well-known motifs from earlier science fiction, and their visions of the future serve mostly to reconfirm well-established views of the present.” But here we should be careful to draw a distinction between the post-apocalypse and dystopia proper, between stories of the end of civilization and accounts of bad future political systems. If the dystopian novels that Heise discusses present future scenarios that only “reconfirm well-established views of the present,” recent post-apocalyptic fiction tends to offer scenarios that are both haunted by and seek to gain critical distance from the present.

Nowhere is the trend towards literary post-apocalypse more visible than with four recent visions of the end times: Edan Lepucki’s California, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Laura van den Berg’s Find Me, and Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star. Far from depoliticized, these novels are in fact deeply political in their turn to post-apocalyptic settings, using such settings to unwind narratives of contemporary life that are paradoxically more real than the ones realism can manage.

<i>Admin Building, Asylum D</i>. Photograph by AndreasS / Flickr

For this most recent wave of post-apocalyptic fiction, I would argue, the defining events were the 2008 banking crisis and the recession it engendered. In this respect, these novels have a surprising recent ancestor in Gillian Flynn’s 2012 Gone Girl. In one scene, Nick Dunne, whose wife Amy has disappeared under suspicious circumstances from their house in his depressed former hometown of New Carthage, Missouri, goes to look for her in an abandoned mall. Once the economic driver of New Carthage, then subject to a long decline, and finally “ended” by the same “recession” that cost Nick and Amy their glamorous New York jobs, the mall’s squatter-filled interior strikes Nick as “suburbia, post-comet, post-zombie, post-humanity.” While Flynn’s book is not quite respectably literary, I would argue that it is in fact the great realist novel of post-2008 America—great, in part, for reasons having to do with Flynn’s suggestion here that realism is insufficient to render the psychological and social ramifications signified by the 2008 downturn. If Flynn offers an image of the post-apocalypse lurking within the present, then the recent crop of post-apocalyptic novels flips this image to emphasize the ghostly present haunting their imagined futures.

Take, for example, Mandel’s Station Eleven, which focuses on itinerant Shakespearian actors wandering through an America devastated by a fast-spreading plague. In a haunting flashback late in the novel, Miranda, an executive at a shipping company, walks down to the beach outside her Malaysian hotel. It is, we are told, just before the advent of the plague. In the distance she sees an abandoned fleet of container ships lying at anchor. “Later that evening,” Mandel writes,


she would find herself troubled and at moments even a little amused by the memory of how casually everyone had once thrown the word collapse around, before anyone understood what the word truly meant, but in any event, there had been an economic collapse, or so everyone called it at the time, and now the largest shipping fleet ever assembled lay fifty miles east of Singapore Harbor. Twelve of the boats belonged to [Miranda’s company] Neptune Logistics, including two new Panamax-class vessels that had yet to carry a single cargo container, decks still gleaming from the South Korean shipyards; ships ordered in a moment when it seemed the demand would only ever grow, built over the following three years while the economy imploded, unneeded now that no one was spending any money.

The local fishermen “suspected a hint of the supernatural in these vessels,” and even Miranda finds “something otherworldly” in them. Later, as Miranda dies on this beach, one of the last things she sees is the sun rising over the ships, “The lights of the fleet fading into morning, the ocean burning into sky.”

This passage is based, as Mandel tells us in her acknowledgements, on an account of real events, Simon Parry’s September 2009 Daily Mail story “Revealed: The Ghost Fleet of the Recession Anchored Just East of Singapore.” In his story Parry visits the ships, these “powerful and tangible representations of the hurricanes that have been wrought by the global economic crisis,” and traces the effects of this crisis from the financiers of London to the South Korean towns devastated by the lack of demands for ships built in nearby shipyards. It’s hard not to read Mandel’s fleet as (taking a cue from the locals) a ghostly presence preceding and haunting that other collapse.

What has collapsed (or rather failed to collapse) in this earlier event is capitalism: not only in the sense suggested by the 2008 banking crisis and the recession it engendered, but also in the sense that the ships embody the breakdown of capitalism’s fundamental premise of eternal growth. As David Harvey notes in his own response to the crisis of 2008, capitalism depends on continuous, exponential growth in order for capitalists to continue realizing profits. And while this process can be partially staved off via “an exponential creation of money,” this putatively immaterial economy in fact remains connected to and able to produce disastrous consequences in the real world. Here Mandel’s skepticism about the word “collapse” makes perfect sense, because, as Harvey notes, “the fall of the investment bank of Lehman Brothers on 15 September 2008” and “the cascading financial collapses that followed” in no way led to the collapse of capitalism as a system, or the uneven economic distribution that it promotes.

With this in mind, one might suggest that Mandel’s book describes an apocalypse that already happened in 2008-2009: it is a novel not about a post-apocalyptic future but a post-apocalyptic present. Laura van den Berg suggests something of this very sort in the acknowledgements to her novel Find Me. Like so many other works of post-apocalyptic fiction, Find Me takes a peripatetic form that follows the protagonist—in this case a former Boston Stop & Shop employee named Joy with a predilection for drinking cough syrup—across a landscape devastated by plague. Like Mandel, van den Berg cites works of non-fiction journalism—Andrea Elliott’s 2013 New York Times series about a homeless Brooklyn girl named Dasani and Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article of the same year, “Apocalypse, New Jersey”—in her acknowledgements, describing them as “sources that shined a light on our current American dystopia.” Setting her choice of generic terminology aside, van den Berg here draws an even more explicit connection than Mandel between the current world and that of her novel. Indeed, there is often not much difference between her book’s flashbacks (which concern Joy’s life as a foster child and supermarket employee) and its post-plague present.

For this most recent wave of post-apocalyptic fiction, the defining events were the 2008 banking crisis and the recession it engendered.

For all of these novels, abandonment provides a keynote. Joy, for instance, has been psychologically abandoned, both by her mother and by the foster parents whose neglect enabled her abuse as a child. The book takes pains to emphasize the absence of social responsibility that made her molestation possible, an absence not merely personal but systemic. The general social breakdown caused by the plague mirrors the previous systemic failures, which recur in the former psychiatric hospital in Kansas where Joy winds up. In van den Berg’s institution, where the personnel claim to seek a cure for the plague, time is structured in only the loosest ways. Joy spends her days wandering the corridors and occasionally breaking house rules to have sex with her male roommate; it’s also a space where the doctors and nurses behave as erratically as their patients. It would be easy enough to read these scenes as part of a long series of postwar American critiques of institutions, a trend apparent in works like Ken Kesey’s 1962 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sylvia Plath’s 1963 The Bell Jar, for example. Yet the stifling, overregulated psychiatric hospitals in these works are very different from the former psychiatric hospital in Find Me.

To put this another way, Joy lives in a world where the institutions that so troubled Kesey and Plath have long been smashed, though not by the nonconformist left but the neoliberal right. Joy herself notes in “A brief history of the Hospital” that “it started out as a public psychiatric hospital, but state budget cuts shut it down in 2009.” Van den Berg makes the neoliberal dimensions of the hospital even clearer after Joy receives a lecture from the head physician on the power of the unconscious mind and realizes that “they do not have a cure here and they are not in the process of creating one. Rather they are hoping that with the right encouragement, the right kind of help, we will be able to cure ourselves”—shades of the Wellness Programs that are replacing all our health plans. Here lies a clue to the prominence of plagues in this most recent body of post-apocalyptic fiction. Whereas in the ‘50s post-apocalyptic fears centered on the atomic bomb, they now swirl around the frequent outbreaks that are worsened, if not caused, by the defunding and/or privatization of the government agencies tasked with their control.

In subtly but persistently linking social breakdown to the post-2008 economic crisis, these novels bring together strains that had already been present in post-apocalyptic fiction in the first decade of the 21st century. McCarthy, for instance, also presents a scenario of universal abandonment, but imagines it as a reversion to a Hobbesian state of nature: in The Road there are only the virtuous father and son trying to make their way to the coast and the savage gangs of cannibal rapists that try to stop them.

By contrast, Brooks’s World War Z, published the same year, shows humanity beating back a zombie plague through the global reemergence of a collective democratic spirit. Brooks’s novel ends with the new SEC chairman telling an interviewer, “We have to nail the bastards who’re preventing confidence from returning to the American economy, not just the penny-ante looters but the big fish as well, the sleazebags who’re trying to buy up homes before survivors can reclaim them, or lobbying to deregulate food and other essential survival commodities …” The war against the zombies, Brooks here suggests, must be followed up by a war on those who would profit from the crisis rather than seeking the common good. Unfortunately, as the speculative investment that followed the 2008 housing crash makes clear, Brooks (perhaps with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in mind) was more prescient about people’s ability to profit from crises than about their ability to learn from them. The more recent post-apocalyptic fiction lies somewhere between McCarthy’s despair for human nature and Brooks’s hopeful invocation of a revived global New Deal.

<i>World War II Bunker</i>. Photograph by John Nuttall / Flickr

Aesthetically, the narrative of post-apocalypse produces within these books a kind of return to minimalism. This is perhaps nowhere so clear as in Lepucki’s California, which she has claimed in an interview sprang from a desire to write a “post-apocalyptic domestic drama” that would tell “an intimate story of a married couple against a high-stakes backdrop of a ruined world.” California begins with a brilliantly condensed image of the themes of abandonment and haunting central to recent post-apocalyptic fiction, sliding almost imperceptibly from the appearance of contemporary suburban realism to something that is clearly not: “On the map, their destination had been a stretch of green, as if they would be living on a golf course. No freeways nearby, or any roads, really: those had been left to rot years before. Frida had given this place a secret name, the afterlife, and on their journey, when they were forced to hide in abandoned rest stops, or when they’d filled the car with the last of their gasoline, this place had beckoned.” Here the point of view, swiftly descending from the map to the territory, intimates how our suburban present lingers within the novel’s vision of post-apocalypse. Especially in its opening chapters, which deal with Frida and her husband Cal’s life alone before they discover a nearby community of fellow survivors, California can feel like nothing so much as Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980), another novel about a small family making do in an isolated setting.

The literary post-apocalypses of Lepucki et al. fend off hopelessness to the extent that they share Robinson’s concern with the small details of making a home in a world where external resources are lacking. All of these novels feature a range of communities struggling to rebuild after the collapse, some of them predatory but many of them not. Along the way the books devote a great deal of attention to domestic arrangements, in the broadest sense. Lepucki spends much of a chapter describing, for instance, the kitchen duty to which Frida, a former baker, is assigned in a settlement called the Land: the differences between her old restaurant and the Land’s kitchen, whose “large woodburning stove” produces an awful stench; her first assignment “peel[ing] carrots and slic[ing] potatoes so thin they were see-through”; the intermittent rise and fall of conversations during the work day.

Mandel, for her part, details the living arrangements of the thespian caravan whose motto—taken from a 1999 episode of the television show Star Trek: Voyager—is “Survival is insufficient.” Even van den Berg, of all these authors the most committed to the traumatic breakdown of order, describes the (strange) domestic routines pursued by Joy and her various hosts. While none of these novels present actual alternatives to the pre-neoliberal social provisions they mourn—a move that would mark a shift from post-apocalypse to science fiction—it is through their commitment to collective social arrangements that they begin to transcend mere melancholy.

Describing the contemporary turn to genre more generally, Lepucki has said that she thinks “the literary novel is moving away from a ‘nothing happens’ model, and more toward one that revels in story,” adding that “the apocalypse is a big story—maybe one of our oldest as a species.” This gets at the way in which her novel and those of her contemporaries stand poised between a range of competing qualities: quotidian description and grand narrative, social commentary and readerly pleasure, despair about contemporary reality and the hopefulness of art. As dark as they can be, all of these books turn to art to imagine some realm of human potential that has not yet been wrung from a society increasingly organized around the demands of the market.

Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star suggests both the potential and the limitations of this ambiguous amalgam. Newman’s novel is narrated by the title character, a now-15-year-old woman living in Massachusetts 80 years after a plague wipes out most of the population and which still fells survivors when they leave their teens. The story commences with two events: Ice Cream’s discovery that her beloved older brother, the leader of their community, has begun showing symptoms of the plague; and the community’s capture of a Russian soldier who claims to be 30 years old and whose people may possess a cure.

The Country of Ice Cream Star retains the commitment to social description that I have noted in the other novels, going even farther to narrate the story in a distinctive patois, the made-up language of the plague’s survivors. Much of the pleasure of reading Newman’s book comes from the language itself, a form of French-inflected English that is reminiscent of the language play of modernist works like Joyce’s Ulysses and George Herriman’s comic strip Krazy Kat. Newman’s second paragraph, for instance, reads,


My mother and my grands and my great-grands been Sengle pure. Our people be a tarry night sort, and we skinny and long. My brother Driver climb a tree with only hands, because our bones so light, our muscles fortey strong. We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we bell to see. Other children go deranged and unpredictable for our love.


There is information here—for instance, the fact that Ice Cream and her fellow juvenile survivors are all black—that we are not yet able to understand but will only become apparent to us as we grow into the community represented by the novel’s dialect—at which point we may also want to read “Sengle” as a corruption of (French-speaking) Senegal. There is thus, I think, an intentional doubleness in the book’s name for the plague, “posies”—literally the disease that kills people on the cusp of adulthood, but also, by association, beautiful flowers, and indeed “poesy,” the poesy of these sentences and all the ones that will follow. In this way the novel’s patois first estranges the reader, then inducts her into the world being described. It thus creates, if only in language, the kind of social bond that it simultaneously mourns and seeks to preserve.

The problem with such aesthetic and linguistic commemoration is, of course, that it’s no substitute for the large-scale forms of social organization that have been eviscerated by neoliberal capital. Even worse, these forms of imagined community run the risk of substituting for such institutions versions of tribalism with which we are all too familiar. Summing up her story in the book’s concluding paragraph, Ice Cream declares, “Be how the new America begin, in wars against all hope—a country with no power in a world that hate its life.” While the novel’s racial thematics certainly complicate its politics, this is still America’s oldest version of itself, a scrappy underdog always ready to renew its revolution against implacable foes. And while the novel’s plot suggests a certain level of nostalgia for the Cold War, this version of American identity also corresponds nicely with the neoliberal ethos of perpetual disruption and revolution.

These novels are at their best and most challenging when they withhold such visions of renewal and simply give us images of a broken United States: people in California, Michigan, Kansas, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and elsewhere struggling to hold it together amidst the ruins of a lost society. There are two reasons we currently find these scenes so compelling. First, they offer representations of the post-apocalyptic present we already inhabit. But second, and more hopefully, they counter this slant form of realism with glimpses of a world freed from the capitalism responsible for the damage.